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You’ve Got Mail (And very possibly a whole lot more!) November 21, 2009

Posted by jassnight in Friendship, Love, Passion, Relationship.
Tags: , , ,

SIP that messageYesterday a colleague came into my office and waved her hand around in the classic move to have me admire her newly acquired engagement ring. After all the pleasantries were played out, I asked her, “So how did you two meet?”  Her story is not an unfamiliar one in these times –  “We met online.”  In fact, according to Online Dating Magazine (2007) there are over 120 thousand marriages that occur every year as a result of online dating.  That statistic does not even take into account free dating sites such as Yahoo Personals and other computer mediated communication (CMC) sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and old-school e-mail.

So what gives here? How does this all work?  You would think that meeting someone without the advantage of visual cues, voice inflection, and eye contact would certainly be a deterrent to developing an intimate relationship. And what about that assumption of being “physically attracted” to a person that gives us the incentive to strike up a conversation? You don’t get that with e-mail baby!

There are several communication theories such as Social Presence Theory and Media Richness Theory that explain CMC as the absolute worst medium for interpersonal relationships to begin and grow.  These theories are based on the concept that the less “cues” a person has available to them for communicating, the less effective the medium will be. So what gives? If these theories are correct, wouldn’t the online marriage statistics reflect that? That doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the online dating industry has seen financial growth of over $642 million (Jupiter Research) and continues to grow.  Zoosk, one of the newest online dating services (affiliated with Facebook) has more than 40 millions users as of October 23, 2009 (Internet Dating Industry Weekly News.)

What is going on here?

Well, think about it this way. Let’s say you have a fine French Bordeaux wine in your hand. How is the best way to enjoy it? Would you chug it or would you gradually take your time and sip it gently as you savor every smell and flavor. Cornell professor Joseph Walther states in his Social Information Processing Theory (appropriately acronymed as SIP) that communication can be savored in the same way – The slower the intake, the more flavorful the experience. People can gain the same information needed to develop relationships through any medium, it will just take longer with CMC. This may seem to be a disadvantage, but in fact, it is one of the parameters that make CMC so effective in relationship building. The players have more time in between encounters to ‘process’ information – savor it, so to speak. I think that we can agree that in all things ‘intimate’, slower is better!

Other characteristics are in play here as well. In related empirical research, Walther discovered that CMC-specific elements, which he labeled Chronemics were a positive factor in relationship development. For example, time stamps on an e-mail can signify affection simply by when it was sent. A late-night message is considered more amorous than a mid-afternoon note. Response time is also an indicator. Quickly returned responses early in the relationship can signify liking and excitement and the frequency of responses reflect attentive priority. Face it, we know that sipping can be tantalizing, but we love to gulp!  CMC holds us back and disciplines us to taste lightly.

Probably the most effective element for relationship building in CMC is the ability to send and receive messages at different times. The very fact that CMC can be used asynchronously can be a tremendous advantage. Think about it. There is a sense of urgency when communicating face to face or on the phone. Both parties need to be available to be “in the moment.” In today’s fast-paced world, it is a challenge to build a relationship when there are busy schedules, careers, and children involved. When an e-mail is sent, there is an assuredness that the other party will receive and read it at a convenient time. And remember that this also contributes to the ‘sip’ factor – savoring the moment. It can also come in handy if there is a mis-understanding or argument. The writer can take their his and carefully construct a message, hopefully after the emotion of the moment subsides.

The 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a classic rhetorical case study for Social Information Processing Theory. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks slowly build a relationship though their computers much in the same way that Walther describes SIP Theory. I can name close to 20 friends of mine who have a significant other that they originally met online. I can name another 20 who are active in online dating sites. Is there something to this madness? Think about this, Computer Mediated Communication works in just the same way as pen pals of the last century. How many of your parents and grand parents developed or maintained a relationship through the mail?

My grand parents did.  Read their correspondence to each other in 1937 on The Philadelphia Letters

Have you got mail?



1. BigLittleWolf - November 21, 2009

Love that the acronym is SIP! I think your comparison to your grandparents letters is perfect. When it works, “online dating” can involve elements of old fashioned courtship, much of which was carried on via long letters over an extended period of time. Through these missives, lovers did, indeed, get to know each other slowly. But it takes two verbal people who enjoy the process to take advantage of that “sipping.”

As for the statistics, it would be interesting to see age demographics, as well as whether or not these are first marriages or remarriages (2nd, 3rd), how quickly they occur, and how quickly they last.

I am not convinced that the pure “number” of marriages tells us anything except how much people want to pair off, and in our technology-based world with such a hurried pace, this has become a convenient way to expedite the process.

Do these marriages last?

We may need to wait another decade or two before we see those studies.

By the way, I still love You’ve Got Mail. It’s become a classic.


jassnight - November 21, 2009

Hold that thought! My next post will address stats…

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